Portrait of Afanasy Fet by Nikolay Rachkov, 1880s
The nineteenth-century Russian poet to whom I return most frequently is Afanasy Fet (1820-1892), whose work never loses its thrilling freshness. A friend of Tolstoy and Turgenev, Fet devoted himself to crafting exquisite, gem-like lyrics in an age dominated by prose. So exquisite were these lyrics that Turgenev, who served as Fet’s editor, reportedly expected his friend to write a poem that would end not with words, but with a soundless movement of the lips. And some of Fet’s poems almost attain that goal, like the appropriately titled “Whispers,” an evocation of a moment of passion that contains no verbs yet reverberates with irrepressible life. I translated “Whispers” and another fine lyric, “By the Fireplace,” for The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and last week I had the chance to linger over one of Fet’s late love poems, which was set to music by Nikolai Medtner (Five Poems by Tyutchev and Fet, Op. 37). Many composers have been drawn to Fet’s work, and Tchaikovsky went so far as to say that the poet was “not simply a poet but a poet-musician.” In the translation below, I’ve ventured away from the original’s anapestic meter, but I do hope I’ve preserved more than an echo of its intense musicality. I offer this transcendent expression of late-flowering love to my partner, Jennifer Croft, as an early Valentine’s Day present.
He wished to drive me mad, the one who melded
the dewy lustrous petals of this rose;
he wished to drive me mad, the one who plaited
this lovely hair in heavy knotted rows.
Should vile old age remove all joy from me,
my soul will fly back here nevertheless,
before the sunset, like a sighing bee,
to revel in this potent redolence.
Guarding the sense of bliss within my soul,
I shall echo all life’s joys and wrecks.
This fragrant honey — it is mine, my own!
For others let it stay just sticky wax!
April 25, 1887
Моего тот безумства желал, кто смежал
Этой розы завои, и блестки, и росы;
Моего тот безумства желал, кто свивал
Эти тяжким узлом набежавшие косы.
Злая старость хотя бы всю радость взяла,
А душа моя так же пред самым закатом
Прилетела б со стоном сюда, как пчела,
Охмелеть, упиваясь таким ароматом.
И, сознание счастья на сердце храня,
Стану буйства я жизни живым отголоском.
Этот мед благовонный — он мой, для меня,
Пусть другим он останется топким лишь воском!
25 апреля 1887